Overmedication in Nursing Homes

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Placing a loved one into the care of a residential nursing facility involves a high degree of trust. Caregivers in nursing homes, from the licensed nurses and doctors who oversee medical services to unlicensed assistants in charge of various forms of care, are placed in a challenging position of managing the wellbeing of people who cannot fully take care of themselves. Dispensing medication is a key function of nursing homes. It can also be a source of problems.

Overmedication happens when an elderly or disabled resident is given an excessive amount of medication or given a medication he or she does not need. This can be a consequence of a mistake, but in other cases a patient is overmedicated intentionally for the purpose of making him or her easier to control. That practice is called chemical restraint, and it may entail giving a patient antipsychotics or sedatives in order to make the patient compliant or calm.

Chemical Restraints in Nursing Homes

The use of chemical restraints to control nursing home residents is abuse and it is very dangerous. However, it is also the common practice in many nursing homes around the country to rely on drugs to control behavior and minimize the need for supervision. Understaffed nursing homes often use overmedication as a way to keep large numbers of residents under control when there simply are not enough staff members to provide necessary supervision. Understaffing is negligence on the part of the nursing home.

Antipsychotic drugs are known to increase the risk of death in in elderly patients with dementia, but nonetheless, they are commonly used to sedate dementia patients so that they are easier to manage. According Human Rights Watch, each week more than 179,000 people are given antipsychotic drugs in U.S. nursing homes, without a proper diagnosis.

Federal law prohibits using medicine to restrain people, but some nursing homes routinely prescribe more medication than necessary to suppress patients and make them easier to manage. This particular type of overmedication could cause disastrous physical consequences, including death, and definitely constitutes abuse.

Accidental Overmedication

Accidental overmedication in a nursing home or care facility can be an indication of understaffing. Elderly patients often have a number of different medications which are prescribed, and staff members that are overstrained or under trained may have difficulty distributing the correct amounts of the correct types of medication. Accidental overmedication at home can be done by the patient or family members. Patients or home caregivers should always consult a doctor before administering over the counter drugs in combination with prescribed drugs, to prevent incidents of overmedication.


Signs of Overmedication

Elderly loved ones may not know whether nursing home staff is giving them more medicine than necessary, or whether they are receiving antipsychotic medicines as a form of control. And you can bet nursing home staff probably will not quickly point out that fact, either. Instead, you will need to look for classic signs of overmedication, such as:

  • Oversleeping
  • Constant fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Grogginess
  • Erratic personality changes
  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Wandering
  • Withdrawal
  • Hallucinations
  • An increase in falls, bruises, or other injuries
  • Problems with balance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty forming a coherent thought


Risks of Overmedication

The unauthorized or unapproved use of antipsychotic medications can cause cardiovascular problems in elderly patients. These can lead to strokes, heart attacks and other issues that can lead to premature death. The higher the dosage, and the longer the drug is administered, the greater the risk to the person’s life. Other problems include difficulty swallowing food and liquids, chronic insomnia, anxiety, diminished cognitive function, and inability to properly communicate with caregivers.

Moreover, antipsychotic medications can alter the effects of other drugs within the patient’s treatment regimen. These drug interactions can lead to everything from sudden drops in blood sugar to unexpected spikes in blood pressure.


Establishing Liability in an Overmedication Lawsuit

In some cases, overmedication happens due to understaffing. Staff members may not be adequately trained or may be entirely too busy and inadvertently give a patient a double dose of medication or the wrong medication. Nursing home residents that have been overmedicated may show certain warning signs including confusion, lethargy, excessive sleeping, mood changes, anxiety, and other problems. In some cases overmedication can result in death. Antipsychotics, for example, can increase the risk of death for a dementia patient. Nursing homes should not medicate patients without a specific prescription and diagnosis.

Often staff members have red flags in their employment history that should alert a nursing home that they are not fit to work in an environment with vulnerable people. A nursing home is supposed to conduct proper background checks and ensure that the individuals who care for residents are qualified. A nursing home can be held liable for negligence for failing to conduct this check, if doing so would have prevented the overmedication from occurring. Even if a nursing home is not directly liable, it may be vicariously liable for its employees’ negligence in the course and scope of their employment duties. The nursing home may be indirectly liable for a nurse who uses chemical restraints in order to control or subdue more difficult residents. In addition to recovering medical expenses, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life that arise from overmedication, it may be possible to recover punitive damages if a defendant’s conduct has been willful or malicious.

Punitive damages are designed to punish particularly egregious conduct and discourage others from engaging in that conduct, such as a nursing home having a policy of secretly using chemical restraints involving non-prescribed antipsychotic medications on a regular basis to subdue residents.

The legal cause of action you pursue will depend on the circumstances, which can take months to investigate. Your nursing home attorney might need to request documents from the nursing home and ask staff and management questions under oath to get a fuller picture of what happened to your loved one. But a good first step is to contact an experienced nursing home attorney to begin considering all of your options right away.


Your Legal Rights

Elderly residents should not suffer abuse through overmedication. Depending on the circumstances, you might sue the nursing home for:

  • Battery. If the nursing home intentionally gives inappropriate medication to your loved one, it may face legal liability for battery, which is an intentional tort.
  • Negligent supervision. This occurs when the nursing home does not properly supervise its staff, so your loved one gets overmedicated because of the facility’s carelessness.
  • Negligent hiring. Some staff, including nurses, might overmedicate as a convenient way to control residents. Nursing homes should run background checks on all new hires to discover any histories of criminal activity or lawsuits. If a nursing home fails to perform the necessary checks, you may sue them for negligent hiring.


Contact an Elder Abuse Lawyer in California

Medical malpractice suits can be difficult to navigate due to the emotional nature of the unfortunate outcomes of these types of cases. It’s important to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can help you and your loved ones decide what may be the best course of action to potentially recover damages due to medical negligence.

If you believe that you or a loved one was seriously injured as the result of a medical provider’s negligence, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer today.

At DuQue Law, our dynamic team has years of experience representing patients that have been harmed by medical malpractice. We seek justice for patients and their families who have suffered from preventable medical errors. Call us now at 1-877-241-9554 to learn more about your legal options. A free consultation is just a phone call away.

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